What is the Best University in America?

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Thursday, October 4th, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Columbia University, ranked in the top 10 by some measures. Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Barbara (Jorbasa)

Columbia University, ranked in the top 10 by some measures. Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Barbara (Jorbasa)

In recent weeks, as they do about this time each year, several publications have attempted to crown the best university in America.

So what is the best university in the country? The answer’s not quite so simple. In fact, just about the only thing these rankings agree on is that they really don’t agree what America’s best university is. U.S. News and World Report picked Harvard University and Princeton University to tie in the number one place, while the Times Higher Education World University Rankings placed the California Institute of Technology in the number one spot, sticking Harvard at number four and Princeton down at number six.

Washington Monthly’s rankings give the University of California – San Diego the win, with Princeton, Harvard, and Cal Tech nowhere to be seen in the top 10. And while Forbes Magazine followed U.S. News in selecting Princeton as its number one school, its number two school is Williams College – a school that doesn’t even appear on any of the other rankings.

(Scroll to the bottom of this article to see all the top 10 lists)

How useful are rankings then, if they can’t even agree on a top contender?

Why different rankings have different results

College counselor Beth Gilfillan wrote in the Times’ Room for Debate that “rankings can be dangerous” for those attempting to pick a college. Students often rely on rankings to make their decisions without considering how the rankings are determined, or how much weight to afford them.

The fact of the matter is that each ranking comes out with different results because each uses very different criteria. U.S. News and World Report, for example, is the only one of the four to include selectivity as a major determinant. Is it any surprise, then, that its rankings are dominated by Ivy League universities?

And the Forbes list is the only one to feature Williams College because it’s the only list that considers small liberal arts colleges at all. U.S. News gives such colleges their own separate ranking, while the others exclude them entirely.

The THE rankings put an emphasis on research funding and output, where Washington Monthly heavily weights opportunities for low income students and participation in community service. Forbes focuses on the success of graduates, as defined by things like how many graduates take prominent positions as CEOs and presidents.

(See the full criteria used by each ranking at the bottom of this article)

How to find your best university

According to Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability, no ranking can tell you the best university in America, because “the ‘best’ school for one student may not be the best for another.” He wrote in the New York Times that students should consider things like their academic interests, location preferences, financial means, and admissions competitiveness in choosing where to apply.

[Universities that offer financial aid to international students]

For two of our new bloggers this year, for example, it was important to find colleges that did not require SAT or ACT scores; one didn’t have the opportunity to take the SAT exam before applying and the other felt his SAT score was the weakest part of his application. The U.S. News rankings disqualify any school that does not require standardized test scores.

EducationUSA advisor Doreen John advised students to also think about their personality in deciding where they want to go. “You may get into MIT  or Stanford,” she said, as quoted in The Star, ”but will you do well there?”

“Applying to big name schools is all well and good,” reflected Nareg Seferian, who went to St. John’s College, a small, relatively unknown college in New Mexico. “But sometimes what you really want out of an education can be really special and well worth the obscurity.”

[Read more on what factors international students consider in picking a college]

Making a new ranking

When Nick was deciding where to apply, he came up with his own university ranking system, comparing schools based on the criteria that were most important to him. He explained his system like this:

“Selecting schools was probably the hardest part in my experience applying to U.S. colleges, simply because there are so many of them. This seemingly impossible process became a little more manageable as I prioritized my criteria in the search.

I basically had two main criteria, namely the quality of the department to which I was applying and its financial aid program (or the availability of any scholarship program specifically for international students).

I wanted to study political science so in using the search tool on CollegeBoard.com and from exhaustive research on the schools’ websites, I came up with a list of 10 colleges. I then placed them in different categories: safe schools, fit schools, reach schools, and dream schools by looking at their acceptance rates – obviously the lower the rate, the harder it is to get in. Above all, this list made sure that I wasn’t overreaching.”

So what’s the best university in America? It depends on what you want.

Full rankings:

U.S. News and World Report
http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities

#1: TIED Harvard University and Princeton University
#3: Yale University
#4: TIED Columbia University and University of Chicago
#6: TIED Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University
#8: TIED Duke University and University of Pennsylvania
#10: TIED California Institute of Technology and Dartmouth College

Criteria: Assessment by peer institutions (survey of presidents, provosts and deans of admissions), retention rate (freshman returning and 6-year graduation rate), faculty resources (largely based on class size, faculty salary), selectivity (SAT/ACT scores, proportion of freshmen graduating in the top of their high school class, acceptance rate), financial resources (average spending per student), graduation rate, alumni giving rate

Times Higher Education World University Rankings
http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/2012-13/world-ranking

#1: California Institute of Technology
#2: Stanford University (tied with University of Oxford, UK)
#4: Harvard University
#5: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
#6: Princeton University
#9: University of California, Berkeley (#7: University of Cambridge, UK, #8: Imperial College London, UK)
#10: University of Chicago
#11: Yale University
#13: University of California, Los Angeles (#12: ETH Zurich, Switzerland)

Criteria: Teaching (Thomson Reuters reputation survey, amount and variety of doctoral and research students including ratio of doctoral to Bachelor’s degrees, institutional income v. academic staff), Research Influence (number of times a university’s published work is cited by scholars), Research (academic reputation survey among peers, research income, research output by papers published), International Outlook (ratio of international to domestic students and staff, proportion of published research with one international co-author), Industry Income (how much research income an institution earns from industry)

Washington Monthly
http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/college_guide/rankings_2012/national_university_rank.php

#1: University of California, San Diego
#2: Texas A&M University
#3: Stanford University
#4: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
#5: University of California, Berkeley
#6: University of California, Los Angeles
#7: Case Western Reserve University
#8: University of Washington, Seattle
#9: University of California, Riverside
#10: Georgia Institute of Technology, Main

Criteria: Social Mobility (% of students receiving federal assistance and grad rate of low-income students), Research (spending on research, PhDs awarded, faculty prestige), Service (participation in Peace Corps and ROTC, community service participation, resources focused on service)

Forbes Magazine/Center for College Affordability
http://www.forbes.com/top-colleges/

#1: Princeton University
#2: Williams College
#3: Stanford University
#4: University of Chicago
#5: Yale University
#6: Harvard University
#7: United States Military Academy
#8: Columbia University
#9: Pomona College
#10: Swarthmore College

Criteria: Student Satisfaction (mostly evaluations on ratemyprofessor.com, also retention rates), Post-Graduate Success (listings of alumni in Who’s Who in America, alumni salaries, achieving position as CEO, Board of Directors or President of leading global companies, non-profits and government), Student Debt (Average federal student loan debt, loan default rates), Four-year graduation rate, Academic Success (students receiving nationally competitive awards like Rhodes Scholarship or Marshall Scholarship, alumni receiving PhDs)

 

12 Responses to “What is the Best University in America?”

  1. anon says:

    Dartmouth and CalTech are tied for 10th in the USNEWS rankings- you should correct your list.

  2. Mohamed says:

    I really think this blog post is helpful, i want to apply to several US Uni’s as a transfer student. All I did was look at rankings, but after reading, i think i will re-consider

    • Jessica Stahl says:

      I’m glad you found it helpful! There’s definitely so much more to think about than just rankings. That’s not to say that rankings have no value – they can definitely be a helpful input as you make your decisions, just understand how they were determined and whether those criteria are important for you!

  3. AFClimber says:

    Great to see one of the US service academies listed on here. Westpoint and Annapolis have an excellent history that rivals any Ivy League and the newest one, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, is often ranked #1 in the nation for overall experience and overall academics.

  4. Hugh Massengill says:

    The best camera is the one you have with you. You matter.
    The best University is one that works for you, that you or your child can get into, that you can afford. Everything else is hype. And Harvard etc. are just doorways for the rich and powerful, people who can afford to spend more than many people make in a lifetime.

    This elitism is evil. Education that ignores so many people, so that a few can gain perfect jobs and lives…
    Hugh Massengill

  5. Dave says:

    Williams College does not appear in “university” rankings because it is a college, not a university. Forbes apparently lumps them in together, but the other polls treat them a separate categories. Williams is routinely voted the top college in the U.S., but without graduate programs to make it a university it does not really compete with Princeton, Harvard or the like. Apples and oranges, if you will.

    • Jessica Stahl says:

      Right. Which makes sense. But I bet a lot of people don’t know that…or think at all about what is or isn’t included in these rankings. I hadn’t really until I started looking into it for this post. The criteria are so different between rankings, and sometimes really surprising. And each list pulls from a different pool of potential candidates as well. The point I hope people take away is to take these with the grain of salt they deserve and not base your entire college decision on what one ranking tells you.

  6. johncein says:

    Informative article. Thanks for sharing.

    College Finder

  7. R. Ketterer says:

    No college or university can be all-inclusive. What should also be considered, and is almost impossible to get, is what it is that you will not get at any given school.

  8. I agree with Ketterer, furthermore in my experience college / university is a good basis. However when you start working in your field, is where you learn the most practical skills.

    Ron Health

  9. Matt says:

    Great post! The rankings don’t even agree on their rank #1 so how should one judge the reputation of a university?
    I find the combined ranking of the three major rankings (QS, THE, ARWU) therefore very informative. It balances the different methods out and gives you a list without any “surprise candidates”.
    http://www.MetaUniversityRanking.wordpress.com

Leave a Reply

The Student Union is…

A place to hear stories about studying in the U.S. Our bloggers have come from all over the world to U.S. universities, and they'll be sharing their experiences, advice and more.

Learn more about this blog »

Share your own story!
Tell us about your experiences applying to the US, studying in America, or doing an exchange, and we may include it on the blog.

Explore

Glossary of Confusing Words

Find definitions of confusing words and terms about studying in the U.S. in our Glossary of Confusing Words.

All the words were submitted by YOU, so visit the glossary to see the words that have been defined already and to suggest your own.